Posts Tagged ‘French Revolution’

“Knuckles” Lavoisier

Posted in General, On This Day on May 8th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

May 8, 1794:  Lavoisier Observes the Effect of Hemoglobin on Steel

In other words, Antoine de Lavoisier was guillotined for treason. This may have been one of the greatest senior pranks, and certainly got the students out of taking their chemistry finals. Actually, “The Father of Modern Chemisty” never taught the subject; so he was not the victim of irate students. His vindictive enemies were the taxpayers of France.

Unlike a modern professor who would supplement his income by forcing the students to buy his books or by sitting as an unctuous cipher on a corporate board, Lavoisier earned money as an extortionist. Mind you, his racket was sanctioned by the French Crown; he had paid the government up front for his extortionist permit. The specific term for the racket was “tax farming.” A tax farmer would pay the Crown for the right to collect taxes in a specified region. The similarity of the words franc and franchise is no coincidence. The more money the tax farmer collected–no questions asked about the tactics–the more he got to keep. You might be surprised but very few philanthropists applied for the position.

Perhaps the squeezed subjects in Lavoisier’s territory should have been gratified to know that they were subsidizing his scientific research. It was not as if he was spending their money on luxurious carriages and young mistresses. Unfortunately, the French taxpayers might have been more sympathetic about that.

Bastille Day

Posted in General, On This Day on July 14th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

In 1789 France was greatest country in Europe. Wealthy, sophisticated, in the forefront of art, intellect and fashion, it was the paragon of western civilization. And all these achievements were despite a government of remarkable incompetence.

The French monarchy was an anachronism. It had modern pomp but medieval circumstances. The government faced 18th century expenses with a 14th century income. A king, on the whims of his mistress, could plunge France into a calamitous war, but he could not raise the taxes to pay for it. The king did not have to answer for his vanity, lust, bigotry or mistakes; but he had to borrow the money for them.

The Crown had been bankrupt throughout most of the 18th century. Much of the treasury actually had been lost in a stock market crash of 1720. The monarchy simply borrowed money to meet its expenses and then borrowed more money to pay off its debts. The deficits grew but the monarchy continued its profligate ways.

By 1778, France could not even afford to win a war; but the prospect of subsidizing the American rebellion against Britain seemed an irresistible revenge for a century of French defeats. In fact, France was so eager that its treaty with the Americans made no provision for repayment or the restoration of lost French territories in America. France proved to be generous to a default. The new debts precipitated a financial crisis. There just wasn’t enough money to borrow. The Crown had to raise taxes; ironically, it did not have that authority.

Throughout the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV had amassed and consolidated the powers of the monarchy. Yet, they had either overlooked or whimsically chosen to preserve one medieval constraint: the power to create new taxes.

That was the prerogative of the Estates General. Since the 14th century France had this rudimentary and frequently neglected form of a general assembly.  It could be summoned only at the king’s discretions, and the French kings proved very discreet. The Estates General was usually summoned in the event of an emergency. When Louis XVI found the crown overwhelmed by its debts, he reluctantly summoned the Estates General to convene in 1789. (The last previous Estates General had met in 1614.)

The Estates General was comprised of three estates that represented the people and classes of France. The First Estate was the clergy and the Second was the aristocracy. The Third Estate was everyone else but particularly the affluent, educated and vociferous bourgeoisie. Since the first two Estates were generally exempt from taxes, the Third Estate would bear most of any new financial burden.

Louis XVI expected the assembly to comply with his requests for new taxes. Louis XIV might have awed such concessions from the deputies. Louix XV might have charmed them. However, Louis XVI lacked his ancestors’ majesty. The 34 year-old was corpulent, awkward and maladroit. Certain merchants in Alsace might have described him as a “schlub.” Louis could not command the Assembly’s acquiescence. Perhaps no one could. The Third Estate wanted concessions in return for its money. Of course, one might expect that from commoners. However, the majority of the First Estate and even a significant number of the aristocrats sided with the demand for reforms, in particular the establishment of a permanent general assembly for legislation.  The French may have hated the British but they liked the idea of a government a l’anglais.

The King and his equally obtuse advisers were shocked by this impertinence. They first tried ignoring the Assembly’s demands. The Crown then resorted to petty intimidation. It locked the doors of the chambers where the Estates General had been meeting. The dispossessed deputies simply moved to a nearby tennis court where they voted to demand a permanent legislature. Faced with this opposition, the dithering King was finally ready to concede to the Estates’ first requests. But, after six weeks of evasions, ploys and intimidation, the aggravated Assembly had increased the tenor and extent of its demands.

Louis was rarely decisive but, when he was, it was a consistent disaster. He now ordered troops from their posts along the border to march on Paris. The king seemed to think his subjects were more of an enemy than any foreign power. If he was hoping to intimidate the Estates General, he only succeeded in igniting riots. The populace of Paris rose in rebellion, desperate to arm itself against any royal suppression. On the morning of July 14, 1789, the militants looted the arsenal at Les Invalides. The mob then attacked the Bastille, a fortress that now served as a royal prison.

Responding to an armed rabble on a rampage, the Civil Guard of Paris mustered its troops and its artillery and marched to the site of the riot. The Civil Guard should have had no trouble dispersing the disorganized mob: it would have been a slaughter. However, when the cannons and muskets of the Guard fired, they fired on the Bastille. Against this united front, the Bastille soon fell.

The news reached the King the following morning. The dismayed Louis asked, “Is this a rebellion?”

“No sire,” a wiser courtier replied. “It is a revolution.”

Why You’ve Never Heard of Kalman Marx

Posted in On This Day on May 5th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Napoleon Bonaparte was history’s most aggressive liberal.  (Bill Maher is a distant second.)  The French Revolution and its chief champion swept away the laws that exalted one religion or persecuted another.  From France to Poland this spirit of Emancipation–supported by French bayonets–tore down the ghetto walls of a 1000 years. 

Of course, when Napoleon fell, the old prejudices and laws returned. The emancipation of the French Revolution and then the restoration of the Old Order had a profound effect on one family in Trier, Germany. When the French army conquered the Rhineland, it abolished the laws that had restricted where Jews could live and how they could earn a living. A rabbi’s son named Herschel Marx now had the freedom to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, after Napoleon’s defeat, Prussia took control of Trier. Prussian law in the early 19th century did not permit Jews to be lawyers. Herschel Marx had a choice: he could abandon his career and return to the ghetto or he could convert. Since he was a lawyer, there is no reason to think that he had principles. He became a Lutheran named Heinrich. The newly christened Heinrich Marx was starting a family and, although his wife Rachel refrained from converting, their children were duly baptized.  But for that, Trier Germany might have had a very dyspeptic rabbi named Kalman Marx.  Instead, history ended up with a self-proclaimed prophet called Karl.


If There Had Been iPods on April 25, 1792

Posted in On This Day on April 24th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Aside from any moral qualms about strangling infants in their cradles, keep in mind this practical consideration. If you don’t succeed, that child might prove very vindictive.

In 1792, the monarchies of Europe invaded France to quash its constitutional monarchy and restore Bourbon absolutism in all its glorious incompetence. If the autopsy report of Louis XVI is any indication, the royalist invasion did not exactly succeed–although it certainly overthrew any French sentiment for a constitutional monarchy.

The new and very vindictive France instituted conscription, creating a massive army that vastly outnumbered the forces of the invaders. The regiments in Marseilles were eager for action but had yet to receive their marching orders. So, reflecting their revolutionary disregard for authority, they decided not to wait. They marched to Paris. As they entered the capital, those “southern” boys were singing a march by one of their officers.

The song, composed this day in 1792, apparently caught on.

Father of the Bribe

Posted in General on May 15th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

If you had looked at Napoleon’s resume in early 1796, you would wonder why he had command of an army–even a third-rate one guarding the Italian border. The 26 year-old really did not have much of a war record. In 1794, as an artillery captain, he had distinguished himself in recapturing the French port of Toulon from French royalists and the British. France was so desperate for capable officers that he was subsequently promoted to brigadier general. Then, in 1795, as the security chief for the French government he did quell a riot in Paris. But what had he done to merit the command of L’Armee d’Italie? To be blunt, he had married the right woman.

Josephine was Napoleon’s first great conquest. She was lovely, charming, aristocratic, a leading figure in high society, and the mistress of the most important man in France. No, not Napoleon; That distinction–both political and venereal–belonged to Paul Barras. The leading politician in the fading days of France’s first republic, Barras (1755-1829) was a remarkable renegade. Born an aristocrat, he was a Jacobin when was it was popular, and Conservative when it was prudent. A lesser man–or a more ethical one–would have been guillotined by one faction or another. But not Barras, he survived and thrived. Now, he was the leader of the Directory, the five-man executive board that governed France. The position came with obvious perks–bribes and mistresses–but even venality has its responsibilities.

A glamourous–but aging–mistress like Josephine could not be just debauched and abandoned like a chambermaid. Dumping her required French finesse. But Barras had a retirement package for her: marriage to an ambitious little (literally) social-climber. He encouraged the match, telling Josephine that the brusque Corsican had a promising future (he did) and telling Napoleon that the lovely widow had a fortune (she didn’t). Even if Josephine’s wealth was a fable, she did have a glamour and a bearing that would elevate the social standing of any grasping upstart.

And there was a nice wedding present from Barras: the command of an army. As you know, Napoleon made good use of it. At this point, his resume became very impressive: the very definition of an over-achiever. In a few years, the new ruler of France would present Barras with a very thoughtful retirement present. Barras would be under house arrest but, having amassed a number of mansions, he could vary his confinement from one palace to another.

When Napoleon fell, the still versatile Barras was a royalist again. For some reason, the restored Bourbons did not trust Barras. He would never regain political power, but he was also spared any retaliation for his past duplicity and corruption. During his five years in power (1794-1799) he must have stolen a fortune; two decades later, he was still loaded. When it came to bribery, Barras was as much an overachiever as Napoleon ever was.